Resources and Readiness: Exploring Civic Education Access and Equity in Six New York High Schools

Pilot Study Report Cover Image

This new report from the Center for Educational Equity offers insights into the resources and practices necessary to prepare students for civic participation in accordance with students’ constitutional rights. The pilot study on which the report is based documented major disparities in learning opportunities among the study schools, including in the following areas: (1) quality, up-to-date history, civics, and government courses; (2) experiential learning opportunities in and outside of the classroom; and (3) access to a full basic curriculum. 

 

Preparing future generations for their civic roles in a democracy has historically been an essential purpose of schooling in the United States. In most states, including New York, preparation for civic participation is also central to the right to education, afforded to all students by the state constitution. 

New York’s highest court, the Court of Appeals, ruled in the Campaign for Fiscal Equity (CFE) case that the state government has a constitutional obligation to provide all students “the opportunity for a sound basic education ” that prepares them to “function productively as civic participants.” It further held that adequate resources for that purpose must be available in every school.

New York State is poised to be a leader in this area. The Board of Regents (the state’s top education policy-making body) and the State Education Department have taken important steps to elevate New York schools’ civic mission. They included “civic readiness” among the measures of student performance to be used for school accountability and support in their federal Every Student Succeeds Act (ESSA) plan that was approved in January 2018. In September 2018, they established a statewide Civic Readiness Task Force. 

However, efforts to understand and promote civic readiness have not explored the school-level specifics–that is, the extent to which individual schools are or are not equipped to provide the learning opportunities needed for civic preparation and how access to necessary resources and practices varies across schools. These details establish key reference points for families, educators, school officials, and policymakers who want to understand the relationship of civic learning opportunities to outcomes and to develop and advocate for more effective and equitable civic-learning practices.

In 2017, the Center for Educational Equity decided to take a closer look. Through in-depth interviews with educators, among other sources of information, our researchers compared three typical New York City high schools and three suburban high schools in the New York City metro area, obtaining insights into the resources and practices necessary to prepare students for civic participation, and explored the extent to which these and other learning opportunities were actually available in each school. 

We found disparities among our schools in many of the civic learning areas we examined, including

  • Disparities in access to quality, up-to-date history, civics, and government courses;
  • Disparities in access to experiential learning opportunities in and outside of the classroom; and
  • Disparities in access to a full basic curriculum.

This research suggests trends and issues that should be tested and explored through further research with a larger, fully representative sample of public schools, including elementary and middle schools as well as schools in rural schools and small cities.

The broad disparities in civic learning opportunities also suggest the need for statewide public dialogue to develop a shared understanding of the civic competencies that students must develop and the civic learning opportunities that students must be provided.

We hope this study contributes to that effort by advancing an understanding of how to ensure that all schools can prepare students to be civic ready.

Please email us at equity@tc.columbia.edu and let us know how you decide to use these resources and tools.

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